On the third week of Advent my true love said to me “Mary Christmas!”

Then Mary said, “My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Saviour. For he has deigned to notice me, his humble servant and, after this, all the people who ever shall be will call me the happiest of women! The one who can do all things has done great things for me—oh, holy is his Name! Truly, his mercy rests on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has swept away the high and mighty. He has set kings down from their thrones and lifted up the humble. He has satisfied the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands. Yes, he has helped Israel, his child: he has remembered the mercy that he promised to our forefathers, to Abraham and his sons for evermore!” ~ Luke 1.46-55 (Phillips)

The words above that fell from the lips of a young Jewish girl sound strange, almost scripted. The words below that tumbled out of my mind will sound equally strange, maybe even comical. But somewhere in all these words stands this pivotal character in the Advent cast. Here’s how I recall the most fiercest one of them all. And don’t forget to visit Kelly and Winn as they join me today in drawing closer and closer.

Funny, isn’t it?

We know all the biblical characters

on a first name basis.

If we were to let loose the

reins of imagination and

assign last names to them,

which yes is somewhat of a rabbit trail,

I believe Mary would simply have to be called

Mary Christmas.

~

On second thought maybe Mary

did that on her own, renamed herself

like Cheryl Strayed did in Wild.

Maybe that’s the sorta silent magnificat

off to the side, in the margins,

the one where Mary took everything in,

and I mean EVERYTHING, and said

From now on I will be known as

Mary Christmas.

~

And instead of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail

Mary embarked on her advent dolorosa, not bent forward by

a beastly backpack but rather a bulging frontpack –

the God who grew more wild and heavy with each step.

Witnesses along the trail wondered why in the world

she would surrender to such a crazy thing.

But she grew more becoming than she ever dreamed,

weathered and blessed in her chosen name, remembered to this day:

Mary Christmas.

 

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A Heart Paused

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Dear John,

First, you should know: I devour your poetry. 
Secondly: Teach me to hope in love. 
I’m one of the lucky ones. My parents are still married, but God and I know they fight every day, because He and I both overhear. Many of my friends are the unlucky ones, and they only know years of not having both parents under one roof, celebrity marriages rife with drama and pain, a glossy-magazine culture full of Hot Sex Tips He’ll LOVE! and not much else.
Today there’s a young man, states away from me – kindly, shyly but courageously offering me his heart. This is a gift to me, I know. But: I also pause. Mostly because there’s no way of knowing the future (obviously), and I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to hurt him at all. I don’t want to hurt him in six months if we figure out we don’t fit well, I don’t want to hurt him twenty years into a marriage when I’m different than what he envisioned, I don’t want to hurt him ever, no matter the outcomes. 
Through grace I’m moving forward. But, teach me to hope in love. 
What would you say to us, the ones who maybe don’t even know how to dream about love anymore?
Signed,
A Heart Paused
~

Dear A Heart Paused,

Author Brene Brown (brilliant writer, I hope you’ve read Daring Greatly) is quite vocal in her dislike of the phrase bless your heart. Now I’m from the South, very familiar with the phrase, and I get her point, that that phrase can be said from a safe, condescending distance dripping with saccharine-sweetness laced with no real interest in what’s going on in your life. I get it, and I’ve been both the giver and the receiver of such horribleness. But I also buck against that a little because I believe those three words, if spoken at our best, or even in our hope for the best, hold immense power, for they say that deepest part of you, the part that holds everything together, that place where hopes and dreams are born? With what power I have I extend a blessing to that place because its hurting or sad or grasping to find its way, and that makes the similar place within me, my heart, feel so very tender toward you.

When I read your note that’s the first thing I wanted to say to you: Bless your heart.

The second thing I wanted to say, and did say, is that’s a doozy of a Dear John. On the one hand its laughable to think an aging dinosaur male would have anything of worth to say to such a heartfelt plea. But on the other hand to not say something would be to fall into the very kind of bless your heart nonsense Brene Brown hates, as do I. So here you go, I offer you what I have, which is my story. And yes, I know there are so many variations to the love-marriage-commitment picture these days, to even speak of marriage in some circles elicits that look a calf gives to a new gate – what’s that? So I trust you can take these words and apply them to your own story.

I’m sure C.S. Lewis or some other dead white guy said something much more eloquent concerning this, but back in 2013, on the occasion of my 23rd wedding anniversary, I wrote these words:

Marriage is the doorway to the second half
of the world, one long learning of what you can’t
do for another person, a shared wrap of yesterdays
woven with small expressions of disappointment yet
each one dyed deep by the hitchhiker’s joy that
someone on the great lonely road stopped to say
Hey, why don’t you and I go together?
 

You wrote of your pause, which is tied to your desire to never, ever hurt this young, courageous shy guy several states away offering you his heart. I so strongly understand this desire, and its so beautiful to hear you speak it. But please let me say the not hurting him part? that’s impossible. Were you to take this young man’s heart, however that might look, you would hurt him. And were you to give your heart to him, he would hurt you too. This is inevitable because, well, you’ve both got each other’s hearts in your hands and while there would hopefully be a wagonload of days in which you would truly bless the hearts of one another, there would also be days in which one or the other or both of you at the same time would curse the other’s heart. I don’t believe we ever go into love with that intent, but it happens along the way.

one long learning of what you can’t
do for another person, a shared wrap of yesterdays
woven with small expressions of disappointment
 
 

So the safest thing would be to withhold your heart from him or whoever else might offer you their heart. But in doing so I believe, and this is simply my opinion, you’re cursing your own heart, you’re limiting what your heart could possibly become by, as some of us used to sing, hiding it under a bushel. Does that mean you couldn’t be happy and discover a cure for cancer and travel the world and carve Russian nesting dolls and support a passel of kids overseas? Nope, it doesn’t mean that at all. But in all that discovering and traveling and supporting I believe there would be a portion of your heart that would be safe but stunted. You wouldn’t be whole-hearted, a condition that can only exist if you’re open to both the hurt and the joy. I wish I could tell you differently, but to do so would be a lie.

yet
each one dyed deep by the hitchhiker’s joy that
someone on the great lonely road stopped to say
Hey, why don’t you and I go together?
 

Yet (I adore that word for its hopefulness) if you’re willing to forgive and be forgiven, I believe its possible for two people to experience something along life’s often lonely road that can only be described as joy. Some of the conversation I’m privy to these days sounds like getting your life together, discovering who you are, building your career, etc., then, when all that’s in place, opening your heart to this thing called love. Does that work? Yep, it sure can, and sometimes in a fascinating way. But there’s also offering and opening your heart to love on the front end of all that and getting your life together together, discovering who you are together, building your career together, etc. Yes, you can do all that together and things can still unravel and fall apart on you. But there’s no way to know unless you try.

And again, while that’s not the only way, since you asked me I’m going to say its quite satisfying, because you’re building this shared history where one day, say in your 24th year of marriage (where I currently find myself), you can, for example, hang ornaments on a Christmas tree with this other person that you’ve given your heart to and some of the ornaments will remind you of absolutely curs-ed seasons that you’d rather not recall but you do because they’re a part of your story, and then there are other ornaments that you hang and when you do your eyes meet and things get misty because you’re reminded of the birth of children or a magical trip to Big Sur or a time in your shared lives when you lived in the braggy state of Texas or how an old rich lady blessed your very young hearts one year by hiring a lovely lady to come once a week and give you a little break from laundry and babies so the two of you could go get a hamburger and a milkshake. I know that all sounds old-timey, almost quaint. All I know is its the truth. 

Life is so short, my young friend. Be careful, but don’t stay on pause too long. Thank you for sharing a little of your heart. I hope the little of mine I’ve shared here helps in some way, that it might bless that similar place in your life that has so much ahead of it, so very much.

Sincerely,

John

p.s. – I love the way you described that guy states away…  

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Nowadays

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Dear John,

When I was a poetry-writing Evangelical Christian, my poetry seemed to be all wrong. Insofar as my faith had all the answers, or at least so it claimed, and as my training as a poet taught me to resist answers, I could either write “good” poems, or have strong faith, but never both. Nowadays I don’t write much poetry, nor am I remotely Evangelical, nor am I, to be honest, a very faithful Christian. I suppose I ought to blame the poetry for that! But I never did end up resolving that tension between faith and poetry. I’m sure it’s possible—others have done it, as near as I can tell. I just couldn’t work it out myself.

When you write poetry, do you have to make sacrifices? Have you had to let go of anything, faith or whatever else? If so, for you, do you think it was worth it in the end?

Signed,

Nowadays

~

Dear Nowadays,

Your words have a palpable wistfulness in them. Since I don’t know you its hard for me to detect just how strong that longing actually is in you. But regardless of its strength, I want to begin by honoring that longing. I also don’t know what level of Evangelical Christianity you were a part of, and like Dante’s Inferno, there are several levels of varying intensity (grin). I grew up a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, so I know a little about those levels.

I do find myself wondering what happened to you, was it a gradual stepping away from both the poetry and the faith, or maybe a singular cataclysmic moment when you said no more!? And I find myself a little sad too that there was no one along the way to say It doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both; in fact, it always has been. Anyway, it feels like yours is a very interesting story, one that other people might benefit from hearing. Just tuck that thought away, okay?

Forgive me if I missed your intent, but I think your question has something to do with if I give up or sacrifice the tension between faith and poetry when I write. My response is no, at least I try not to because my goal is to tell the truth in my poems and the truth, for me, is that the tension you mention is what makes good poetry, and good faith. Now I know, and I believe you know, some people equate tension with the D-word (doubt), and according to them if you have doubts about pieces of the faith then you’re calling into question the whole gig. I do not subscribe to that view, never have. Doubts, says Frederick Buechner, are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving. In my mind, good poetry is about being awake, and moving if in nothing other than your mind. So I find good poetry and good faith to be quite the delicious combo, sorta like black coffee and cherry pie.

But I also think you’re wanting to know if I’ve had to give up anything, anything at all, when I write. My response to that is yes, I’ve had to let go of what people think about me. And please don’t hear that in some past-tense-I’ve-arrived sort of way because I have to give that up anew each and every day. A line from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” has been a rubric for me in this: Teach us to care and not to care. I’m definitely still learning, but I am learning that there are things in this world that I’m here to care for and care about, and there are things I’m here to not care about. In that latter category falls the opinions of others, whether they read me as orthodox or heretical or just plain goofbally. I will say that gets a little easier with age, one of the many gifts of forty-and-beyond…a little easier.

If I haven’t answered what you’re asking, I’m sorry. And if I have answered your questions, I’m still sorry because there was no one there to tell you Keep writing that poetry stuff and keep wrestling with those angels and the goal, for God’s sake, is not to get them to resolve into some single something or other but to make them press close enough to each other to dance and so steal your breath away. Evidently there was no one like that for you back then. But I’m a brass-knuckled optimist who believes its never too late, so please allow me to be that person who’s telling you of the both/and in these nowadays, these days that just might be asking you to take up a pen again, and stir up some ants, and care and not care now that you’re a little older.

Oh, has it been worth it? You bet it has.

Sincerely,

John 

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On the second week of Advent my true love said to me “Shush!”

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
*Isaiah 40.1-6

~

Maybe the gift we all need this Christmas is a mirror. Not a full-length or even a hand-held oval style, but a simple thin strip of that reflective magic material that would allow each of us to only see our eyes. Taking a good long look in such a mirror might show us something about ourselves and the systems that prevail in our country, systems that have prevailed for far too long now.

I invite you to read the thoughts my friends Kelly and Winn are sharing today around this same passage. The ones below I claim solely as my own.

A voice said Cry this Advent, o privileged one!

   And I said What words shall I cry to comfort your people?

And the voice said Shush! Put aside your words for now.

Those white pressed releases say

outrage, outrage when there is no real outrage.

No, for now you must stand in shouldered silence

as the pavement absorbs the killings, and wait.

Wait until you are leveled and straightened by compassion

so that you cry actual tears from your actual eyes.

Then and only then can you even hope

to begin to speak tenderly to the wound

of your beautiful black brothers and sisters.

To speak of such things dry-eyed is to mock the song.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

   And I said Then, after the tears, what shall I do?

The voice said Then, through your tears you must disrupt with words.

You must proclaim that there is another kind of freedom,

the freedom to take care of yourselves and of each other.

Tell them I have declared this, and I AM the judge

of all the living colors and the dead. And I AM not blind.

 

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On the first week of Advent my true love said to me “Hold still, this is gonna hurt.”

Isa. 64. 1-9 KJV
Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence,
As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!
When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence.
For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.
Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved.
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.
But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.
Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people.
 

The word rend kept tripping me up in this passage. I’d read and re-read but it was like that word was a pulse I could feel throughout. Actually instead of a pulse it was more like a warning beacon, this flashing yellow light that demands caution. This shouldn’t have surprised me because I believe if Advent is anything, and I do believe it is something indeed, it is prophetic, and so designed to catch us off guard, throw us off whatever balance we may have taken the ordinary days to achieve, possibly offend us, or even frighten us as we wait.

But for us, for me, for our world right now, the word rend is far too sophisticated.

Advent.
The waiting.
That’s the accepted stance
isn’t it, Lord?
Yet what this really is
about is the rending.
But that word’s far
too sophisticated.
This is about the tearing -
tear that rhymes with fair,
although fairness has
nothing to do with it.
Mary knew of the tearing
didn’t she? You tore her
flesh when you first slipped
into all the world to be taxed
then slowly tore her heart
to pieces, bit by bit.
Yes, she knew.
And we know too if we’ve guts
enough to admit it because
we’ve repeated the sins of our fathers
one too many times
and if we want the forgiveness you
freely offer we know it comes
with the catch of the tearing –
tear that rhymes with fare, like how much it
costs to be thrown on
your wheel and spun
into something of
great price.
There’s no doubt we can be saved.
But we end up torn -
torn that rhymes with born,
as in be born in us today.
Advent: hold still,
this is gonna hurt.
 

I’m joining friends Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and Winn Collier in wrestling with the same Advent passage each week this season. Please visit them and their words around Isaiah 64. 1-9 – http://afieldofwildflowers.blogspot.com and http://winncollier.com.

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The Bravest Thing

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Dear John,

Your poem “The Bravest Thing” has carried me through many a day the past year. I have read and reread, and shared and re-shared your words. I am not sure if I am in a full blown “dark night of the soul,” but it is possible and/or close. Can you tell me, if even in part, the occasion which prompted you to write these beautiful and powerful words?

Signed,

A bravely skipping stone
 
maybe the bravest thing
is opening your eyes in the
morning and placing your
two feet on the cold floor and
rising up against the gravity
of the night. maybe that’s the
brave thing from which all other
bravery flows, the brave to
seek ye first. maybe that’s the
single thing God requires of you,
the spiritual discipline that takes
all your will to muster. Swallow
down the fear, my child, and face
the dawning day for what the
surface of the world needs most
of all is bravery skipping and
you, yes you are the stone.
 

~

Dear Bravely Skipping Stone,

Many people talk in many ways about the dark night of the soul. But one of the common threads through all that talk is the profound feeling of being alone. Before going any further I want to say that’s what I hear in your question, and the sound of being alone hurts. I am sorry you’re feeling that, even if, as many claim, the dark night leads to a consciousness-shattering dawn. Because when you’re in the night its dark, and often cold, and you feel, or at least I have in the nights I’ve weathered, just plain lost. Forgive me if I’m reading too much of me in you, but that’s what I hear in your question.

That poem you’ve reread and so graciously shared with others? It surfaced during such a night. It was strange, and completely uncomforting, to me during that night that the voices of faith around me all seemed to be chanting words about being your best you, or giving your all and then some, or putting on a world-changer jersey. It was like being in the middle of a pep rally, and I just wanted them to shut up because I was simply trying to summon the will to shave. 

For some reason one morning, and I can’t remember why, I was reminded of something John Updike said. I’ll botch this but it was along the lines of some days the most spiritual thing you can do is set the empty milk bottle out on the steps. That’s not something chanted at pep rallies, huh? That’s the kind of thing a trusted friend quietly says to you from across the kitchen table, a friend who can only say that because he or she has endured days of doing nothing more than setting the milk bottle out on the front steps. I thought to myself before you put the milk bottle outside, you’ve got to first put your feet on the floor. And those were the shaky legs on which the poem was born. I am thankful it has meant something to you. I know it did to me at the time.

That poem is really about grace, a word that is often on banners at those pep rallies I mentioned earlier. But unfortunately what those banners wave of is a straining grace which, in my opinion, cancels out the whole grace thing, an ill-defined grace that’s about achieving or building or doing something that the world finds impressive. Not everything that quacks like grace is grace. I realize that sounds quite judgmental, and maybe it is, and maybe that’s not as bad a thing as we think. One thing you do learn in the dark nights is discernment, or how to judge things for their worth or lack of.

I’ll close with two prayers for you. First, I pray that during this night, be it full blown or close to it or something in between, you’d keep putting your feet on the floor. Please, please, please don’t stop doing that. Remember – the eyes this world knows little of sees that seemingly simple action as intensely brave. And my other prayer for you is that this night makes you a little more judgmental, or if you’d prefer discerning, that you’re able to see a little more clearly, so you can say this is worth my time and attention but that over there is not. Discerning people know that pep rallies are pep rallies, but the game, well that is something else.

Sincerely,

John

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A Delicate Matter

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Dear John,
I often question that delicate balance, of self-aware knowledge of gifts but humble acknowledgement of flaws– and where to draw the line.  Through your experience, how do you learn to be confident in who you are and yet admit your very humanity and brokenness?  Surely one cannot cloud the other, but we have a tendency to blow anything out of proportion, flipping the balance on its head. Too humble and you risk a meekness and lowness that cannot even be passable as humility anymore– but too confident and you risk arrogantly pushing away those you love.  In seeking to bring life to others, how can I cope with the sorrow of the world while still making the beauty shine– and learn to admit I hold that beauty myself?
Signed,
A Delicate Matter
 
~

Dear A Delicate Matter,

Now that’s what I call a question. Thank you for articulating so very well this daily, hourly, minutely conundrum we all, and that includes me, face. It is indeed a delicate matter. But I do not believe you can approach it delicately. Let me try my best to explain.

What you’re hinting at in your question is achieving, what I call, the Goldilocks effect. You don’t want to be too humble and you don’t want to be too confident, you want to be just right. Man oh man, how I get that. It would astound you how much I struggle with this.  But since you’re asking, I’m gonna tell you that like the Goldilocks story itself, that approach to living is a fairy tale. Understandable? Goodness yes. Real? Nope.

Years ago a trusted friend sent me a cd set by the poet David Whyte titled “Midlife and the Great Unknown.” It is fantastic, a wonderful way to spend $10. I listen to it over and over again. Of the many takeaways in it, one of the most important for me was the concept Whyte calls the arrogance of belonging. He says, in a nutshell, that if you really believe you belong to this earth and this time in which you find yourself alive, that the sense others around you will have of you (including yourself) is that of arrogance. That’s right – arrogance. Now if you follow his progression there, the first question for each of us to answer is do I belong? That is, as they say, a biggie. But if you answer yes, then you go and do whatever it is you do and do it with everything you’ve got. As you do this – teach school, tend bar, play tennis, raise chickens, write poetry, whatever – others will no doubt perceive you as being a little too big for your britches (and they’ll gladly tell you so in a variety of ways).

Now I get the sense that you carry a heightened awareness of your own flaws. In other words, that you have a tender heart. My gut tells me the greater struggle for you is to believe in your own beauty. Now sure, your arrogance may get out of hand from time to time. The best way to keep a good eye on that? Stay thankful my friend, practice gratitude without ceasing. My experience has been that when I let that get out of hand that life itself will step in and let me know. But I’m not sure that’s as often as we sometimes think.  The more common experience is that we let the voices/opinions/thoughts of others cause us to question our belonging-ness, and unfortunately that comes because they’re questioning their belonging-ness. Yes, fear loves company. The last Dear John question I responded to indicated the importance of others, what some call community. It is important, but there is an almost unquestioning worship of community these days. There are dangers to community, one of the most subtle being that most of the time the group prefers conformity. I didn’t say all of the time, but I did say most of the time.

You cannot approach this delicately like some Goldilocks picking out the nicest mattress. No, you must be stubborn. Do you believe you belong? For what its worth, please hear me say I believe you belong. But you have to answer that for yourself (and you have to answer it over and over and over again). Answer it, and know that belonging will always feel arrogant, maybe especially so for the tenderhearted. But the world so needs your tenderhearted beauty. Its why you’re here, it really is.

Sincerely,

John

 
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